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Moving on

The late Ward Swingle would remind us from time to time that he always had a suitcase packed. It wasn’t a threat exactly, but perhaps a more optimistic symptom of a mindset that always allowed for the possibility that change might be inevitable and for the better. After four years with his group it turned out that several of us had suitcases packed and we moved on. I repeated the process several times with other ensembles, and when I joined the Hilliard Ensemble I felt obliged to tell the guys that I had a reputation for leaving things. I stayed for 18 years so that mostly went right. Each of my departures was triggered by musical frustrations, and every time I risked impoverishment as I reverted to surviving on my wits while I searched for the next musical grail. It was never easy but ultimately always exciting. The truism that musicians don’t do it for the money is for most of us absolutely true. Though there are limits. On one occasion the Hilliards were involved in a big recording project in Germany and the producer suddenly announced an additional performance and broadcast with no fee attached. The instrumental band with us readily agreed without telling us and we got a bit exercised and said no.  ‘I guess the Hilliards only do it for the money’ said our collaborators. To which our response was it’s not that we only do it for the money, it’s just that we don’t do it for not the money.

So what are we all to do post-Covid? Well, first of all there may be no post-Covid, so we may have to get used to staring at an empty diary. Those of us who’ve been around for decades may find our musical hearts torn out (or perhaps transplanted) but we will survive because we always have, and if you survive long enough you get a pension. At the other end of the spectrum those starting out may be panicking at the prospect of no career and no income. And then there are those who might or might not have been able to get government assistance.  Those of us lucky enough to be able to should be wary of doing it for not the money: let the work (such as it is) go to those who really need it.

The problem isn’t helped by the fact that universities and conservatoires have successfully oversold a profession to the extent that it was already full to bursting before the pandemic hit. Full, that is, with excellent musicians competing for the same gigs with the same repertoire. Look at the audition requirements for music colleges, and compare them with half a century ago. Look at the categories for musical competitions. There have been amazing exceptions, but ‘classical’ singing mostly remains just that: classical. Which is fine as long as audiences and opportunities increase to match the staggering numbers of fantastic musicians who graduate each year. That hasn’t happened for some time, and is very unlikely to happen in the present circumstances.

A re-think is long overdue. As a university lecturer the one piece of advice I was able to give students based on my own experience as a performer was that their future career might well not have anything to do with what they had studied, and they should be open to anything that came along.  Of course, it’s very easy to be open to anything when there isn’t anything to be open to, but after a bit you have to make serious decisions about what happens next. My guess is that in a severely shrunken profession very few young musicians can expect a full time career. One effect of the over production of singers was the continual undercutting of successful careers by the succeeding generation who would do the same job just as well but for lower fees. This affected many of my contemporaries who followed the traditional route and eventually priced themselves out of the market. So expect to need another source of income, and don’t do the same as everyone else, otherwise you may have a very short career.

Pop musicians have been coping with this problem for years, and are used to turning uncertainty and risk into creative opportunity. Streaming gigs from home via Facebook or Instagram isn’t the recital experience you may be used to, but it gives you a much more intimate connection with your audience (comments instead of clapping). You might discover that your audience, engaged by the new reciprocity, is up for all sorts of challenges, and you should be too.

Having said that, I’m not…or not yet anyway.  But I do have some sort of structure and direction and am no longer in mourning for gigs that I can’t do. Sitting in the garden listening to bird song is actually better than listening to disembodied flight announcements. It’s time to move on (even without a suitcase) and I’ve always eventually managed that successfully in the past. I miss  Alternative History and the Dowland Project, and I miss bringing to life the 16th & 17th century musicians whose future we inhabit. But in the meantime for me it’s reading and writing which I hope will bear metaphorical fruit in the future, and gardening which is bearing actual fruit in the present. You have to think in the longterm…

 

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